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In Theaters/On VOD: BACKTRACE (2018)

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BACKTRACE
(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Brian A. Miller. Written by Mike Maples. Cast: Ryan Guzman, Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine, Meadow Williams, Christopher McDonald, Colin Egglesfield, Lydia Hull, Tyler Jon Olson, Sergio Rizzuto, Swen Temmel, Joe Gelchion, Jenna Willis, Baylee Curran, Yan Dron, Carl Nespoli, Geoff Reeves. (R, 87 mins)

Though it's not part of Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, BACKTRACE certainly upholds the grand tradition: it's directed by frequent Willis VOD helmer Brian A. Miller (VICE, THE PRINCE, REPRISAL); it deals with a robbery gone south; has 50 credited producers; it's shot in Georgia, one of the big states (along with Louisiana and Ohio) known for generous film production tax breaks; and it boasts the star power of second-billed Sylvester Stallone, who hopefully wondered aloud at some point, "Who the fuck is Ryan Guzman and why is he billed over me?" Stallone is clearly pulling Willis duty here, probably working 4-5 days tops, with most of his scenes keeping him confined to his desk at a police precinct, glowering at a wall of maps and mug shots in what appears to be the only case he's been working on for seven years. It was seven years ago that Donovan MacDonald (Matthew Modine) and two accomplices made off with $20 million from a Savannah, GA bank and tried to keep more than the agreed 50% share from their silent partners, offering them a mere $5 million. A shootout ensued, killing MacDonald's two cohorts and leaving him comatose with a bullet in his head. Seven years later, he wakes up in a hospital with a debilitating case of retrograde amnesia, unable to remember anything and prone to migraines and nightmares. Robbery/homicide detective Sykes (Stallone) has been monitoring the case all this time, but is repeatedly told by MacDonald's doctor (Lydia Hull) that his mind is a blank slate and there's nothing there.






But buried somewhere in the nether regions of MacDonald's memories is the location of the stashed $15 million that he and his partners kept for themselves. Enter Lucas (Guzman, of two STEP UP sequels, HEROES REBORN, and currently on 9-1-1), who's in the psych unit for a voluntary 72-hour evaluation. He seems to know all about MacDonald, and is in cahoots with hot-tempered guard Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and nurse Erin (Meadow Williams) to bust the amnesiac perp out and use an experimental medication on him to jog his memories and hopefully reveal the location of the money. Meanwhile, Sykes has to contend with FBI agent Franks (Christopher McDonald, cast radically against type as "Christopher McDonald") trying to take over the case (don't the Feds have jurisdiction on bank robberies anyway?), followed by the inevitable ridiculous third-act plot twist and assorted double crosses.


Would you be surprised to learn that BACKTRACE offers a climactic shootout at an abandoned factory? Or that at least one major character isn't who they claim to be? Or that at one point, a sneering Franks informs Sykes and his captain (Joe Gelchion) that "I'll expect your department's full cooperation?" The slightly sci-fi angle of the experimental serum injected into MacDonald's spine, allowing him to "see" his memories come to life, sounds like something that might exist on the bottom of Christopher Nolan's slush pile, but its almost-lofty ambitions end there. As far as Brian A. Miller movies go, this is better than expected, but that's not quite cause for celebration. The biggest surprise is that Modine is essentially the star. He has the most compelling character and the most screen time, and like a veteran pro, he invests much more effort into a forgettable VOD time-killer than was really necessary. Despite his inexplicable top billing, Guzman is strictly a supporting actor with no more to do than Williams and Olson (his image isn't even on the poster). And with CREED II still in theaters, Stallone finds himself back on the road to VOD/DTV oblivion a few months after headlining the execrable ESCAPE PLAN 2, with the simultaneously shot ESCAPE PLAN 3 due out next year. Sly at least handles his extended cameo with a reasonable degree of professionalism by actually showing up and sticking around for his scenes. That's more than Miller would've gotten from another cynical walk-through from Willis, who would've done his close-ups in a day and let an unconvincing double fill in the blanks. BACKTRACE has a slightly more ambitious approach to its formulaic, generic heist-gone-awry scenario, and its big-name action star is actually awake, but it's MVP Modine busting his ass and going above and beyond that almost single-handedly makes it maybe worth a look on a slow night.


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